AJ, as he is affectionately known, is the new alpha male in local trail running. He snapped at the heels of trail running maestro Iain Don-Wauchope at the Otter African Trail Run in October and broke the 50km Three Peaks Challenge record by 17 minutes in November. Earlier in the year, in wind and rain, he won the 80km Hi-Tec Peninsula Ultra Fun Run (PUFfeR) and set a new record time of 6:59:36, becoming the first runner to set a sub-7 hour time on the original, full-distance route. Although AJ is a relative newcomer to trail running, his pedigree is impressive. He has been a multiple All Africa Triathlon Champion, South African Duathlon and Triathlon Champion and South African Cycling Champion. He also holds silver medals for Two Oceans and Comrades finishes.
First up, we have to clarify. Do you
ever get stick for being a ginger?
Well yes, rightly so, I am, as it happens a ginger… I don’t really mind it though, been that way since birth.
Has your multisport background
helped your trail running?
Yes. It teaches you a lot of discipline, getting up early, training until late. It also teaches your body how to hurt… Triathlon training is pretty hardcore the way we did it. I think it also gives you strength, mentally and physically.
Really now, why trail running?
I was never a sub 30-minute 10km runner, and these days, in triathlon you have to be. I was always stronger and slower. I got a bit over the training and racing scene. The trails are more laid back and the people are a great (crazy) bunch, which makes it worthwhile. Also, getting out and training and racing in these remote areas is great.
Are you a one sport kinda guy?
I mountain bike and ride on the road now and again, usually after big races to get the legs going again. It’s great because it’s a very low impact exercise. I try to surf as much as I can (which is not much being a happily married man to a stunning wife), it’s a great way to get your mind off things and spend time with mates. Trail running is a pretty full body workout if you are climbing and running a lot.
Which other sport would you recommend a trail runner do for
Mountain biking is good as it gives you the leg strength you need for climbing. Killian Jornet does a lot of riding and he’s the best climber around. Also it teaches you skill for the descents and how to pick a fast and safe line down steep hills.
Favourite training location
I have a couple, but I froth at the mouth around mountains. Seeing those monstrous peaks and epic trails stirs something inside you, and you want to conquer them. I love running anywhere on Table Mountain, around Jonkershoek and also at the beach at Melkbos where I live. Beach running makes you super strong and it makes for a great change of scenery.
If you find a lesser-known trail, do you let your trail running friends know about it?
I don’t particularly like running with other people. It’s mostly me, my dog and my wife. But if I find an epic trail, I will share it.
What really pees you off
about trail running in South Africa?
The great thing about trail running is also the worst thing. It’s still under the radar so it’s still light-hearted and fun and everyone has a great time. However, this means there is not a lot of cash in the sport for those of us who want to do it as a career. Ryan Sandes is an incredible runner and has made a career out of it by working super hard, the rest of us are swimming in his wake and trying to do the same. The lack of prize money does keep the racing honest and fun though. Luckily brands like K-Way, Newton and GU have come on board to support me in my endeavours.
There is one thing I truly hate. I know it’s a trail run and we are out in nature and all, but we are running our socks off and many times the routes are not marked properly or the marshalls not informed… which means we run off course… this is a pet peeve of mine. Also when the races are done, remove the route markings, would you? It’s the law! There are still markings around Stellenbosch from a race held months and months ago and it spoils the scenery.
Minimalist or cushioned?
Natural, so a bit of both. I don’t agree with the school of thought that says we were built to run extreme distances. A few kilometres maybe, but not hard core training day in and day out, for that you need some cushioning. However, not too much that it influences your gait and stride negatively. I think Newton have hit the nail on the head as far as I am concerned with the Distancia. I ran the Puffer in those and they were fantastic.
Where would you be
without trail running right now?
Fat and unfit! The lessons we learn as runners we take into our personal lives, whether it’s a work ethic, the ability to persevere despite circumstances or just appreciating the beauty of this incredible creation around us. I think running changes a person and makes you a better version of yourself. See it like a marriage: the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it and enjoy it. It’s what you make of it, and it can be the greatest or worst partner for you – the choice is yours.
Originally published in January/February 2013 issue 57.